Atlanta manager Bobby Cox made it clear Monday in his press conference talking about the 2010 season.
The Braves are not going to be in the market for Jason Bay or Matt Holliday, the two big free agent outfielders on the market this winter, and two players who fit what the Braves are looking for in a right-handed hitting outfielder with power.
Instead, the Braves could look within the organization for help in the lineup.
"We have a young kid by the name of Jason Heyward, that just turned 20 in August, that is maybe the top prospect in all of baseball," Cox explained. "We are going to give him a chance to compete for one of the outfield jobs."
Heyward is well-known by everyone by now. He was the Braves' top draft pick (14th overall) in the 2007 draft out of Henry County High School in McDonough, Georgia, just 20 miles south of Atlanta.
In his two-plus seasons in pro ball, Heyward has established himself as a legit five-tool prospect. He has power. He can hit for average. He can run. He can play defense. And he can throw.
Five tools. Star. Stud.
I'll admit, when I got to Indianapolis to cover the winter meetings, I would have probably given Heyward a 20% chance to be Atlanta's opening day starter in right field. But after hearing Cox, and talking to a few scouts both inside and outside the Braves' organization, I now put those odds at around 70%.
It was easy to assume that since Heyward missed most of the Arizona Fall League with an injury, the Braves would prefer to see him get a little more time in the minors before pushing the 20-year-old to the big leagues. Heyward played in only four games in Arizona before being shut down. He had inflammation in his lower back that caused some discomfort in his hamstring and gluteal muscle.
If Heyward had played, it would have perhaps convinced the Braves he was ready for his shot at the major leagues. The organization knew after last year's Arizona Fall League that Tommy Hanson, who dominated the league, was close to being ready. So the AFL is just often used as a gauge to test the readiness of a player.
But the injury hasn't seemed to dampen Atlanta's belief that Heyward could get a shot. "It's not like we believe he would have struggled in the AFL if he had played the full schedule," one executive told me. "The kid is really, really good, and he could be ready to go."
Braves general manager Frank Wren is looking for help for the offense. If he knew for a fact Heyward was going to be the starter on April 5, Wren would not have to worry about right field. But not knowing for sure puts him in somewhat of a peculiar position.
Let's say Heyward is not ready opening day. Well, the Braves have to plan for that. But if Heyward were to go to Triple-A and then, say after a month prove he's ready, any player that Wren acquires this offseason would be unnecessary.
But with Cox making his comments, and just the tone of the people talking about Heyward throughout the week in Indianapolis, the Braves may simply have a stopgap or backup option on the target list that could easily accept a reduced role when Heyward shows he's ready.
And, of course, Matt Diaz is still around. Diaz took over in right field after the trade of Jeff Francoeur in July and did good work for the rest of the season. Diaz could easily be the stopgap in right until Heyward showed, whether it was in March in spring training or in the minors to start the season, that he was ready for the big leagues.
Jordan Schafer is a forgotten player by some. If he were to have a good spring training, and if Heyward were to struggle, we could see Schafer in right until Heyward came up to Atlanta. Then, Schafer could either go to left field or be a reserve.
The team is going after a left fielder, with Xavier Nady the hottest name on the list right now. And if the Braves were to get a Mark DeRosa-type player, he could play right field if Heyward were not ready, and then if Heyward were to show he could start opening day, a player like DeRosa could be a super-sub and move around different positions on the diamond.
Heyward is a lefty hitter, and while the Braves are looking for mainly right-handed hitters, his potential to add power to the lineup is the biggest attraction. Heyward had 17 home runs in 362 at bats between Myrtle Beach, Mississippi, and Gwinnett last season. Scouts believe he will consistently hit 30 home runs or more once he reaches the big leagues.
Now, of course, that might not happen in his first season. It may take him a while to get up to that point. But even if he's a fraction of what his ceiling may be, Heyward would be a huge upgrade over the production the Braves received last year in right field.
Heyward has only 876 at bats in the minor leagues. Let's see how many minor league at bats some other major prospects had before they reached the majors:
Chipper Jones: 1679
Jeff Francoeur: 1416
Andruw Jones: 1220
Brian McCann: 1075
Rafael Furcal: 987
Yunel Escobar: 836
Now each case is special and different, but there's no doubt that by pushing Heyward the Braves would be taking a risk. It's a risk anytime you challenge a young kid that is 20 years old. But if he goes to spring training and puts on another show, that could clinch Heyward as the opening day right fielder.
Heyward made his impression on Cox last spring. There were several Monday scrimmages last March, when the Braves were not playing a Grapefruit League game. Heyward put on a show more than once in those scrimmages, including hitting several home runs - two that traveled up the scoreboard in center field, and two laser shots to right field.
Putting a 20-year-old kid in a major league lineup is a lot of pressure. But from all accounts, Heyward is the type of player you wouldn't mind pushing. He's extremely mature, and he handles things very well. The Braves continue to be amazed by how special Heyward is, on and off the field.
"He's got great makeup," Cox said Monday. "He's very smart and he's extremely talented. And he's hungry. He's got the entire package."
And as we wait for Wren to put a package together to get another bat or two, we cannot forget about Heyward. If this kid is this good, maybe he's the one that can help the lineup. Heyward is close, and there's a solid chance he'll be in the opening day lineup when the Cubs come to Atlanta on April 5.
Bill Shanks hosts The Bill Shanks Show on
WFSM Fox Sports 1670 in Macon, Georgia and The Braves Show Talk Show. Shanks writes a weekly baseball column for The Macon Telegraph and is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team. You can email Bill at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/billshanks.
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